From the time he was an infant carried on his mother’s back, Froilan Ramos left his home village deep in the mountains of western Guatemala each year, crossing the border into Mexico to spend weeks on the coffee farms of Chiapas.
It was the life his mother and father had always known.
And the year he turned 10, he began harvesting coffee as well — grabbing the basket, making sure each bean was ripe and pulling off one at a time. At day’s end, he’d walk for two hours carrying the 40 or 50 pounds of coffee he’d picked to a designated drop-off, then go wearily home, rising at 4 the next morning to start again.
At the age of 16, Froilan’s cousin, Gustavo Ramos, set out from the same Guatemalan village, La Vega del Volcán, with one change of clothes, $300 and a dream of what joining his older brothers in the United States would be like.
Over the six years that followed, Gustavo would see beauty and some fortune as he worked in Atlanta, Ga., and Tallahassee, Fla.
But he also found terror and hardship — getting robbed in Mexico shortly after leaving home, spending days in the desert along the U.S. border with little food or water and, after arriving, living daily with the loneliness and fear of being far from home.
Migration, whether to the coffee farms of Chiapas, Mexico, or to the U.S., is a way of life in villages and communities scattered along ridges through the rugged mountains of the San Marcos department of Guatemala.
With no more than steep fields and rocky, challenging soil, families have depended on crossing borders for the sustenance they haven’t been able to eke out of their own small plots of land.
“Before, we used to think the only way to get ahead, to go forward in life, was by migrating,” says Gustavo, who returned to Guatemala in 2007 and now serves as general manager of an MCC-supported cooperative in La Vega del Volcán.
Now, through MCC-supported efforts, including two community cooperatives and initiatives to raise trout and flowers, Froilan, Gustavo and others are beginning to find the resources to write a different story for themselves and for their children.
At first glance, trout might seem an unlikely answer for La Vega del Volcán, a village that has long lived off corn, beans and migration. Most people here had never even tasted trout.
But a project that started as part of MCC’s emergency response to a 2005 tropical storm has grown into a lively cooperative with its own fish hatchery and plans to expand efforts to raise trout and enter new endeavors such as community-based tourism and ecological agriculture.
After flooding and mudslides from Tropical Storm Stan inundated homes and destroyed fields in La Vega and surrounding villages, MCC partnered with the Catholic Diocese of San Marcos to provide hygiene kits and rebuild cisterns and houses.
A community fish pond, a rectangular concrete pool with mountain stream water flowing in and draining out, was included in the response to help address malnutrition in the region.
The idea took hold.
Farmers say trout are relatively easy to tend and sell, meet their families’ need for protein and allow them to take advantage of one resource that is in this region, the water flowing freely in mountain streams and rivers.
Since then, MCC has assisted in the construction of 25 family fish ponds in La Vega. People supported through the MCC effort have gone on to build additional ponds on their own, and some people who never joined the MCC project have built them as well.
Residents who became convinced the project would succeed pooled their own money to buy a piece of land — a move that paved the way for MCC to partner with the cooperative to build a fish hatchery that was finished in 2011.
For Froilan, though, the main benefits are much closer to home. He points to the two-story house he was able to build with proceeds from the fish — with a floor of tile instead of dirt and, for the first time, sleeping quarters for himself and his wife that are separate from their seven children and his parents.
Instead of leaving to harvest coffee, he is able to remain here year-round.
In migrating, he recalls, “I would abandon my family for months at a time. Then I would return and I would have to spend a lot of energy and some of the money I just made trying to recoup those crops and other activities I had neglected. Nothing ever changed.
“Now though, I’m here,” he says. “I don’t have to neglect the things I’m working on.”
That is the essence of MCC’s goal in this region.
In addition to the trout project in La Vega, MCC also supports flower raising and a second cooperative for the nearby communities of Nuevas Maravillas, Toniná and Yalú. Gardening efforts in these communities, plus La Vega, are meant to help families raise more for themselves, sustain their soil and figure out more ways to earn income from what they grow.
Core to each project is an invitation to help people figure out how to remain at home — and to use the resources they have there to expand their families’ opportunities.“Our program has helped to change how they put food on the table,” says Juan Pablo Morales, program coordinator for MCC’s local technical team. (Read more about Morales) “They can do it without going. It’s producing that change. ”
For Gustavo, that’s a critical need.
“I know what migration is like and it’s not easy,” he says.
When he left in 2001, at the age of 16, his brothers had given him a choice — they’d pay for him to join them in Atlanta, Ga., a common destination for people from this village, or they’d pay for him to go to school.
“I had heard all the beautiful things about the United States, so I opted to go,” Gustavo recalls. “I thought it was beautiful and that there would be work for everyone and it paid well. And I just wanted to see it.”
Today, he speaks of what no one told him — the difficulty of the journey, how hard it was to live far from family and the daily terror of being in a strange land without papers. (Read more about Gustavo’s life and his immigration journey.)
Eventually, in August 2007, Gustavo was detained during a workplace immigration raid, held for more than three months and finally deported back to Guatemala in November 2007.
The vivid stories of loss he heard from fellow detainees continue to shape him today. One man traded his family’s house and land to the bank for a chance to go to the U.S., only to get caught at the border. Another was in the desert with a sister who fainted, then died in his arms.
Gustavo carries these accounts, determined this won’t be the fate of any of his community from La Vega.
It’s a resolve based on his own history — but shaped by his experiences with MCC and the dedication to community and service he’s seen from other members of the technical team such as Morales.
Before, Gustavo says, “I had a personal vision. I had goals and much of that I achieved. But I always did it alone.
“What I’ve learned and what has changed is it’s not just about achieving my own goals,” he says.
Now, he says, “I’ll achieve, but I’ll do so bringing people along with me.”
View a video slideshow about MCC’s efforts to assist farmers and empower communities in rural Guatemala.
An October learning tour to this region of Guatemala is focused around the themes of migration and development. Learn more about the “Alternatives to Migration Learning Tour: Guatemala”.
In western Guatemala, MCC helps people work together to raise fish and flowers, increasing families’ livelihoods and helping to prevent migration.
$300 covers the cost of building a fish pond.